From Lean Workplaces to Empowered Work Spaces

By Jon Miller Updated on January 24th, 2022

We could describe what lean management does as an exercise in threefold rearrangement. First, we rearrange what’s in our minds. This often begins with our attitude about what is our isn’t “my job”. It includes how we view our work, what adds value and what is wasteful. For leaders, it can be rearranging our expectation from boss to servant. Second, we rearrange how we do our work by changing the content, sequence or timing of process steps. We experiment to find safer, faster and better ways. And third, we rearrange our physical space to accommodate the new way of working, remove physical impediments to flow, visibility or safety.

This is sort of an idealized version of what happens during many lean transformations. Rarely do things proceed from 1-to-2-to-3. It’s too tempting to make changes to processes or physical spaces before we’ve really rearranged our thinking. Or, as many argue, if it’s only possible to change our minds through practice, the sequence should be 2-3-1 or even 3-2-1. There are real risks to forging ahead with physical or process changes without working on people’s mindsets. Processes rarely stay improved when people don’t . At the same time, many organizations move too slowly or get nowhere because people need more education, awareness and persuasion before taking steps.

Visuals, Vibes and Values

I was reminded of this interplay between changes to physical space, mental space and productivity by a passage in The Extended Mind, by Annie Paul. For more on that excellent book and what it can teach about lean management, here is an article by Kevin Meyer and another by me. The passage the book begins, “The way space is arranged can recognize our individuality, with positive effects on our motivation and performance.”

What this means in practical terms is that people can feel included or excluded just by the way that workplaces are arranged. The people who work there may not be actively trying to keep out women or minorities, but when the many visual cues, social signals, rituals and so forth are designed by and for the majority of the people who work there, newcomers who are not part of that group can feel excluded. The book quotes Indiana University psychology and brains science professor Mary Murphy as observing that such “prejudiced places” that will “unequally tax the emotions, physiology, cognitive function, and performance of some groups more than others.”

Often the focus of making workplaces more diverse, equitable or simply welcoming are focused on training. Organizations try to rearrange the mindset of people, but this is hard. It’s not fun to be told that we have to change our thinking. The author points out that changing some aspects of the physical spaces may be a more effective way to reducing the bad vibes people receive. This is relatable from a lean management point of view. When we connect processes one-to-one, it’s not as easy to perpetuate working in a wasteful way, generating WIP, defects or switching between tasks. It doesn’t require a mindset change to work within a well-designed process. The same may be true for so-called prejudiced workspaces. We may be able to shift values by alter visual cues and the resulting vibe.

Home Field Advantage for Everyone

It’s always fun when books on management can back up their ideas with experiments tied to brain chemistry. Anyone who follows sports is aware of the idea of home field advantage. Athletes tend to win more when they are competing at their own ball fields, stadiums etc. On the surface this is often chalked up to the crowd noise being used to boo or cheer in ways favorable to the home team, the lack of travel-related fatigue and lost preparation time, or even superstition tied to pre-game routine and ritual. However, it turns out that teams and individuals compete with more aggression when at home. Both male and female athletes test for higher levels of testosterone. This hormone is linked with the expression of social dominance. Social dominance is correlated with being in “my house” surrounded by thousands of cheering supporters.

According to the book, researchers have identified that when people occupy spaces they consider their own, they feel more confident and capable, allowing them to be more productive. It seems like commonsense that if you feel at home, at ease, not looking over your shoulder or distracted, you’ll get more done. The mind works better when there is less cognitive load, and the home field provides this. If this is the case, why wouldn’t every organizations want to give all of their people home field advantage?

When “Lean Offices” are Anything But Lean

In the book, the notion of the “lean office” takes a beating. These two words I put in quotes because the book describes workplaces that aim for a spare, clean, impersonal workspaces. Psychologist Craig Knight and Alexander Haslam studied and compared “lean” versus “enriched” and “empowered” versus “disempowered’ work environments. Their own research demonstrated that people are less productive in a so-called lean office stripped of individual personality. Haslam points out, “Making people feel they are in the wrong place, that it isn’t their place, is a very powerful way of undermining performance,” and that when employees are able to feel at home they are more committed to their company.

In the “empowered” office, people “got 30 percent more done there than in the lean office”. Three people working with home field advantage got as much done as four people working in spaces where they felt unfamiliar, unwelcome or unrepresented. It’s worth nothing that while efforts at applying lean thinking to office work can be result in reduction of clutter and the reduction of personal items stored there, these are not the main aim. The word “lean” should not be used to describe offices or any spaces that lack the twin values of continuous improvement and respect for humanity. Empowering people to build home field advantage into their workplace seems like a simple way to do this, backed by brain science.

Building Home Field Advantage in the Virtual Workspace

The ninth and final principle of the Extended Mind is to “embed extensions into our everyday environments.” The mind works better when it gets, an assist from the environment, just as the home team feeds off of the energy of the home crowd. At a minimum, designing home field advantage means removing distractions and surrounding ourselves with the information and visual cues. These should signal to us that we have home field advantage. Perhaps more importantly, the result of designing home field advantage should bring the feeling of autonomy of control, and its associated positive brain chemicals.

I found the following sentence from the book to be particularly persuasive. A sense of ownership extends from the individual to the organization, and it flows through physical space. All of this has fascinating implications for the emerging work-from-home trend. How well does the 30% productivity boost of home field advantage apply when working from home? What does it take to achieve this benefit? What can employers do to help people design home workspaces that give them this advantage? How do we design work spaces, visual signals and routines when managing in virtual environments? How do we foster a sense of ownership from individual to the organization, the absence of physical space? What does the future of work look like and how can we build in home field advantage?

  1. Charlie Mey

    February 7, 2022 - 12:13 pm

    Thank you for the great read.

    I recently read a WSJ article similar to the effect a job’s physical environment can have on its employees, especially during these times of remote working. It seems to me that many companies are entirely moving fully remote instead of a hybrid or in-person despite lower covid numbers and with vaccines available. For many, they enjoy working from home because it is a more comfortable environment for them (Homefield advantage). Still, I feel as if this takes away the relationships employees are able to build and connections they have with its company. Working remotely lacks the energy from the home crowd even though you may have the homefield advantage. I’m very curious to see how remote working affects many jobs in the years to come.

  2. Ron Pereira

    February 7, 2022 - 1:30 pm

    Thanks for the comment, Charlie. I also strongly prefer to come into an office with other people but do know some folks that love working from home. They don’t get much, if any, energy from other people so being able to stay home is a huge plus for them but a massive negative for folks like me.

    What will be interesting to see, long term, is whether extraverted people will eventually leave companies that only offer remote work options while introverted people seek the remote only places of work. And if this happens…will it even matter? Time will tell I suppose.

  3. Erin Chratian

    February 15, 2022 - 12:03 pm

    Thank you for sharing this blog post!

    I certainly agree that it is important to make sure we design our routines and work spaces around creating an environment that will give us the “home field advantage.” I definitely prefer working in an office as opposed to at home, but no matter where the physical location is, it must be a welcoming and empowering space (which may or may not be the case for everyone). I am interested to see how the current trend of hybrid working or completely remote work will pan out in the next few months as covid cases drop. Like you mentioned before, many organizations will probably be slow to move and make a decision without the education of covid constraints, awareness if employees want to return or the inability to persuade workers to come back full time.

Have something to say?

Leave your comment and let's talk!

Start your Lean & Six Sigma training today.